In March 2021 I visited the Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen for the ‘Renaissance Children‘ exhibition, telling the story of Burgundian and Habsburg princes being educated by Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy.
At that time, Mechelen was a capital of Europe. That time, was the 15th century and beyond.
Mechelen (French: Malines, traditional English name: Mechlin) is located in the province of Antwerp, in present-day Flanders, in present-day Belgium. It uses to be part of the Margraviate of Antwerp in the Duchy of Brabant in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
Mechelen is one of Flanders’ prominent cities of historical art, with Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Leuven. It was notably a centre for artistic production during the Northern Renaissance, when painters, printmakers, illuminators and composers of polyphony were attracted by patrons such as Margaret of York, Margaret of Austria and Hieronymus van Busleyden.
In the 15th century, the city came under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy, marking the beginning of a prosperous period. In 1473 Charles the Bold moved several political bodies to the city, and Mechelen served as the seat of the Great Council of the Netherlands until the French Revolution. In 1490, a regular postal service between Mechelen and Innsbruck in Austria was established.
The highly lucrative cloth trade gained Mechelen wealth and power during the Late Middle Ages and it even became the capital of the Low Countries in the first half of the 16th century under Archduchess Margaret of Austria.
During the 16th century the city’s political influence decreased dramatically, due to many governmental institutions being moved to Brussels.
From the station to the Hof of Busleyden
At the end of March 2021, I visited Mechelen for a couple of hours. From the main railway station, Mechelen, it’s a twinty-minute walk.
A first landmark is the City Hall. Mechelen actually has three town halls: the old Schepenhuis, the Huis De Beyaert and the present-day town hall. Behind the latter you also have the administrative centre called the ‘Huis van de Mechelaar‘.
The current, historic city hall consists of two parts: the cloth hall with unfinished belfry and the Palace of the Great Council. The belfry wasn’t finished because of lack of funding. For two hundred years the belfry was no more than a shell, until it was eventually provided with a temporary roof in the sixteenth century. That roof is still there.
The belfry is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
On the right of the belfry you can see the oldest part of the town hall, the remains of the earlier cloth hall. On the left is the Palace of the Great Council. The Great Council? It never actually met here, because this wing was only completed in the twentieth century in accordance with the original sixteenth-century plans of the then leading architect Rombout Keldermans.
Statue of Margaret of Austria
Everyone who payed attention in history class will have heard the name Margaretha van Oostenrijk, Margaret of Austria. Archduchess Margaret of Austria (10 January 1480 – 1 December 1530), suo jure Countess of Artois, was Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands from 1507 to 1515 and again from 1519 to 1530. She was the first of many female regents in the Netherlands.
A central political figure of the early 16th century, Margaret was one of the greatest government administrators, political negotiators, and patrons of her time. She helped Emperor Charles V overcome his uncertain steps at the beginning of his reign and was an invaluable asset to his rule until her death.
She put her mark on the Netherlands and on Mechelen specifically. She has a statue near St. Rumbold’s Cathedral.
Palace of Margaret of Austria
At the Keizerstraat 20, you find the Palace of Margaret of Austria, also known as Hof van Savoye, Court of Savoy.
Margaret of Austria was regent of the Habsburg Netherlands between 1507 and 1530. Her residential palace was the Court of Savoy, the first renaissance building in the Low Countries. The renaissance spread from here.
From 1616 to 1796 the palace was home to the Great Council of Mechelen, the highest court of law in the Southern Netherlands. The façade still features Margaret’s coat of arms, alongside the coat of arms of Charles V and a figure of Lady Justice.
Margaret’s life was turbulent. She was given in marriage no fewer than three times. The French crown prince, the future Charles VIII of France, sent her back at the age of eleven because he found a better match.
Then the Spanish heir to the throne Don Juan died a few months after they were married. And Philibert of Savoy, the love of her life, died after three years of wedded bliss. The twenty-fouryear-old Margaret dressed as a widow ever after and refused to remarry.
Margaret was appointed regent of the Netherlands and settled in Mechelen in 1507.
According to her contemporaries, she skillfully ran the country.
The palace now houses a court of first instance.
Palace of Margaret of York
Opposite the Court of Savoy you can see all that remains of Margaret of York’s palace. Originally the Bishop of Kamerrijk (Cambrai) resided in the building when he was in Mechelen. Margaret chose the vast Court of Cambrai as part of her settlement when she became a widow.
It is also known as the imperial court because Charles V resided here from 1500 to 1515. Just above the little door in the tower is her diamond-shaped escutcheon, alongside that of her spouse, Charles the Bold. The former reception hall of the palace in now the Stadsschouwburg (City Theatre).
Maegaret of York was the sister of King Edward IV of England. He married her off to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who had just been widowed.
Charles had a daughter from his previous marriage. Mary of Burgundy was just eleven years old when Margaret became her stepmother. The two got on very well together. Charles was killed on the battlefield of the infamous Battle of Nancy in 1477 and his daughter Mary succeeded him.
She was 19, young and inexperienced and found herself up against the rich and assertive Flemish cities which were striving for greater independence. Margaret advised and assisted her but was a thorn in the eye of the cities. Margaret was banished from the court and moved to the estate she had inherited from her husband in Mechelen.
Sources: Wikipedia, Visit Mechelen